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Why Board Game Cafes Are the Next Big Thing

The geeks shall inherit Cleveland


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What used to be a term of derision has morphed into a badge of distinction for those among us who proudly claim to be a geek. From T-shirts emblazed with comic book characters to the practice of donning more tech on one's body than the Six Million Dollar Man, the era of the geek is now.

For proof, look no further than three new businesses that cater very much to nerds, geeks and introverts. At places like Side Quest in Lakewood, Malted Meeple in Hudson and, very soon, Tabletop Café in Ohio City, games that used to be relegated to home basements out of fear of bodily harm now are being played very much out in the open.

"Geek culture in general is on an upswing," explains Jim Reed, owner of the Malted Meeple. "Just look at your top-grossing movies right now. They're The Avengers, Captain America ... and that's what is pushing a lot of these trends in gaming."

Aptly enough, Reed opened the Malted Meeple on March 14, known as Pi Day in the nerd world for its mathematical reference. Like most board game cafes, Reed's stocks a library filled with hundreds of tabletop games. Guests pay a few bucks to rent a game or a table and are welcome to sit there and play as long as they wish. A selection of beer, wine, cocktails and snacks helps pay the bills.

Ironically, the very people who are wired to the hilt with electronic gadgets are the same ones driving the upswing in analogue gaming, says Reed. It is precisely our increased reliance on technology that is propelling the popularity of board games.

"Most of us have an iPhone and iPad around us at all times," he says. "They have become a part of our everyday life. That's what makes it all the more important to have some time to disconnect and spend quality time together. A lot of the board games that we have — and the ones that are my personal favorites — are not about the pieces or cards; they're about you interacting with the person across the table from you."

The number and nature of available games is staggering. Side Quest in Lakewood stocks about 200 titles. They range from rowdy party games like Cards Against Humanity to strategy-based civilization-building games like 7 Wonders. Some games are cooperative, others are competitive. Some require a mastery of pop-culture trivia; others, like Iron & Ale, reward brute physical strength and an unquenchable thirst for beer.

Intimidating? Maybe. But usually not for long, says owner Sam Bridgeman.

"First-timers do sometimes come in, look around and seem confused," he says. "But they get a beer, grab a random game like Zombie Dice and sit down. You can actually see the point when something clicks and they go, 'Oh, playing games and drinking is fun. I like this.'"

Gamers learn about the catalog of available games through game store demo days, publisher events, or the cafe's game menu, which includes links to short instructional videos. Of course, the best way to learn, says Bridgeman, is to play.

"You can learn a lot better and faster by jumping into a game with other people than by staring at the instructions," he says.

And therein lies the appeal of places like Side Quest, Malted Meeple and Table Top over, well, your parents' basement. Board game cafes take historically anti-social activities like D&D cosplay and make them social and socially acceptable.

"If you're playing a game with friends and want more people to join you, you simply hang a sign on your table," says Bridgeman. "This allows people to meet others and play games they might not get to play normally. Games serve as a conduit to make that happen."

When it opens later this month, Table Top will boast a whopping 900 unique games according to owner Shiva Risner. She looks at each and every one of them as an opportunity for people to interact on a personal level.

"Being online all the time is convenient, but it's also exhausting," she says. "People are wanting to take a breather and socially interact with friends face to face. Board games are a great way to do that. For some, it's a novel concept to not be connected."

Board game cafes fall into a category of entertainment referred to as "experiential." Not only is Jim Reed familiar with the concept; he's based his career on it. In addition to owning the Malted Meeple, he operates Ravenwood Castle in Hocking Hills, an inn that hosts 48-hour-long murder mysteries.

"More and more we're hearing that it's better to spend our money on experiences than things," Reed says. "Places like ours are all about providing a unique experience."

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